Husband Harry says birthdays do not mean that much to him. It’s just another day and folks should not waste money buying cards and gifts. Perhaps this is because he grew up during the depression, or it may be because he shies away from being the center of attention.
His mother always prepared a special meal for his birthday. When he was thirteen, he read the card she gave him and thought what a waste it was to pay money for a card every year. After thanking her, he handed it back saying, “Here – use it again next year.” She did.
Thus began a birthday tradition that continued throughout her life. Each year she wrote a word or two about some significant event that year. It went to Alaska and to Germany when he was in the service. It became a brief history of his life: school, army service, college, wedding, new babies, ordination as deacon and elder … Every inch of that card was filled by the time of her death over twenty years ago.
I also honor my husband with a special meal, although he tries to talk me out of it. In those early years before I began to drive, I called Mr. Saunders, our “meat man on the city market” and ordered steak. Cut to my specifications, he delivered it to our apartment. Harry’s birthday comes five days before Christmas, so instead of a birthday cake, I make his favorite date bars and chocolate dipped butter-cream balls. When she was a teenager, our daughter Kathy took over the candy making and it continues to this day.
Sometimes Harry convinces me to eat out to celebrate his birthday. His concern is my cooking a special meal in the midst of preparing for the holidays. For his 70th I chose the Charcoal Steak House. He warned me not to tell the waiter it was his birthday. “If they start to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ I’ll get up and leave,” he said and knowing Harry, he would do just that.
A week before the big day son Harry called and revealed that our three children—in New York, Raleigh and Nashville – through a conference call had arranged a special dinner for us at Hotel Roanoke. Everything would be paid for – all we needed to do was show up. He suggested that I keep it a secret. “Tell Dad you want to take him to the Hotel Roanoke.”
Harry would never believe I selected the Hotel Roanoke, so I decided to let him in on the plan. Suddenly I remembered Harry’s response to the singing of “Happy Birthday!” I called son Harry and warned him. Later, he told us when he explained his dad’s concern, the maitre d’ replied, “Sir, the Hotel Roanoke does not do ‘Happy Birthday!’”
We felt like royalty at a special table with a window that looked out upon the Christmas tree with its brilliant lights. We still have the wine glasses with Hotel Roanoke in gold lettering that were given to us as souvenirs.
Ten years later I made plans for his 80th birthday. All the children, their spouses and our grandchildren were asked to meet us at The Home Place in Catawba. Of course, in late December there could be snow and travel over the mountain would be problematic.—or impossible. We couldn’t go on December 20th, but Sunday, December 18th was a possibility. What reason could I give Harry for choosing The Home Place? Our grandson Byron was visiting us from UVA and since he had never been to that restaurant, I suggested we take him.
It worked! Harry thought it was wonderful idea, and added, “That can be for my birthday so you don’t have to fix a meal.”
Snow stayed away and after church we headed over the mountain. There we found all our family (except oldest grandchild, Cynthia, who was in Florence, Italy for her freshman year of college) seated. at a long table in a special room in the old farmhouse, awaiting the guest of honor. We had not expected son Harry, who was working in Germany, but there he was. He had flown to Roanoke solely for the party, and spent the night with his brother John so he could surprise us. The following morning he returned to Munich.
His luggage did not make it to Roanoke, so he had to borrow some necessities from his brother. Three days later when he was safely back in Germany, the luggage arrived, only to be bounced back across the ocean once again.
So what made Harry’s birthdays meaningful? Not gifts, or cards but love – expressed in ways as individual as his loved ones themselves.
– Mary Jo Shannon